Broken Bread In A Broken World
February 21, 1988 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | I Corinthians 11:23-26
The Bible is an incredible storehouse of valuable treasures. I have long since learned that no matter how familiar a particular passage of the Bible may be, no matter how many times I may have read it and studied it in the past, there are always unexpected truths in that passage still waiting to be discovered. This passage in I Corinthians is a case in point. I suppose that over the years I have read the passage hundreds of times, studied it dozens of times, preached from it at least five times. Yet, with the help of a minister friend of mine, just recently I discovered something in this passage I had never noticed before. At first glance, it appears to be a grammatical error. But let me explain…
Paul writes: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is broken for you1…” Now I always assumed that the word “this” referred back to the word “bread.” However, now I discover that in the original Greek the word for “this” and the word for “bread” do not agree in gender. Apparently, the word “this” may not be referring to the “bread.” Understand, please, that throughout the rest of the passage, every gender matches perfectly. Besides that, Paul was an extraordinary technician in the use of the Greek language—he just didn’t make mistakes in grammar. So what may have been his intent? Well, the only other word in the passage which agrees in gender with the word “this” is Jesus’ reference to the company of disciples gathered there at the table. Could it be then that Jesus was saying something like this: “You are my body. You will be broken just as I will be broken; and when you are broken, remember me?”
Now I do not make this suggestion casually or carelessly. In the first place, we make the sentence grammatically correct by understanding that the pronoun “this” refers not to the bread, but to the disciples of Jesus. We also square this passage with the many other instances where both Jesus and Paul refer to the Church and its people as “The Body of Christ.” Perhaps it is even true that Paul began to use the word “body” to speak of the Church because of the way Jesus used it at the Last Supper.
If this is true, then Jesus’ words at the table are far more than simply Words of Institution for the Sacrament. They are nothing less than a divine call for us to take up the cross in our everyday lives and follow Him, cost what it may. Now let me extract some thoughts from what I have just offered.
First this: If the Church is His Body and if that Body is to be broken, it must be broken in love, not in discord.
The Body of Christ, the Church, ought never to be broken apart by believers at war with themselves. Tragically, though, it does happen. That evil enemy who seeks the downfall of the Church of Jesus Christ sends into the midst of every healthy Body of Christ agents of division and discord who work to destroy the unity of the Church. Nothing is quite so ugly as discord within the Body of Christ. Someone has said that the Church is rather like Noah’s Ark—if it weren’t for the storm on the outside, you couldn’t stand the stink on the inside. There’s truth in that.
Sometimes I get letters from people attacking other ministers or other expressions of faith. Sometimes I experience firsthand the efforts of those who through negativity and dissension bring to woe the Church of Jesus Christ. Sometimes I am called upon to minister to those who have been crushed by harsh judgmental ism so prevalent in some so-called Christians. Sometimes I observe a spirit of cut-throat competition among denominations. And, every time I encounter these evidences of disunity in the Body of Christ, my heart breaks, for that is not the kind of brokenness to which we are called by Jesus Christ.
An old Chinese legend tells of a fish and a crab fighting over a morsel of food near the shore. While they struggle, neither one willing to give in to the other, a fisherman comes along and catches them both. Whenever the Church involves itself in inner strife, whenever it ruptures its own peace, it makes itself vulnerable to all those who would oppose it. That’s not the kind of brokenness to which we are called.
No, the brokenness to which Jesus calls us is the brokenness to which Luther referred when he said: “The Church is the heir of the cross!” In other words, the brokenness of the Church is to be a brokenness on behalf of others. Jesus is saying to us: “You are to be so broken in service to the world that the world will come to me as my love is expressed through you.”
Agnes Keith, the great missionary to China, spent the years of the Second World War interned in a prison camp, thus interrupting the marvelous work she was doing for Christ in China. Later on, as she was looking back over the experiences of her life, she said that she had learned that there are only two ways you can break a human being—one is by unalleviated cruelty, the other is by unadulterated love. The way of the cross, and thus, the way of the Church is the way of love.
That was the secret of the success of the New Testament Church. It was not that they had evangelism committees, or that they delivered pronouncements on the issues of the day. It was that they out-loved all those who were of their time. Jesus calls us to that kind of loving. We are to be lifting the world to Him, but we are to do it through offering ourselves in costly love to the people of this world, even if it breaks us.
Then this: If the Church is His Body, and the Body is to be broken, then when any part of the Body is broken, all of the Body hurts.
You know how it is when you have a headache—you hurt all over. You don’t say: “My head has an ache.” You say: “I have a headache.” Hit your thumb with a hammer and you feel it right down to the tips of your toes. Just so, when any member of the Body of Christ is hurting, we all hurt. When any member suffers, we all suffer. When any part of the Body calls out for help, we all ought to respond. We are not an organization; we are an organism. We, as the Church, are a group of people so deeply committed to each other, so bound together by the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, that when one of us hurts, all of us rush to bear the burden.
Do you remember that riot at Attica Prison in New York where 43 guards and prisoners lost their lives? Well, it wasn’t commonly stated then, but 60% of the prisoners at Attica were black and the town of Attica was virtually all-white, so there was little contact between the whites in Attica and the blacks in prison. Seventy-five percent of the inmates were from New York City, while Attica was a rural village—no contact there. After the riot, it became apparent that one of the needs of those inmates was to have some contact with people like themselves; but there was no direct public transportation between New York City and Attica. So a church in New York City began running several busses of inmate friends and relatives up to Attica each Sunday, a distance of 300 miles. But a prison is a prison—and there were no facilities there for the Sunday visitors to freshen up after the long bus trip. So the church in New York asked a church in Attica if they could use their building as a comfort station. The church said: “No, we don’t want the wear and tear on our facilities.” The next Sunday, they had communion in that church in Attica. Afterwards, one of the men in that church asked for a reconsideration of the whole matter. The church’s position was reversed, and the visitors from New York City were given a weekly rest stop. And you know, friendships grew up out of that. The people from the city began to bring cakes and pies to their hosts in Attica. The barriers were broken down.
All of that happened because one man saw in the Sacrament that Jesus Christ was not crucified on a white linen tablecloth between two stacks of silver trays, but on a city garbage dump between two thieves. He was broken for the sake of a broken world. That’s why I think Jesus calls us to that kind of brokenness for the sake of this world and for the sake of each other.